Jackie Lebo’s forthcoming book Running goes behind the scenes of the Kenyan athletic phenomenon that we now take for granted. In this excerpt, we meet Elias, a young hopeful on the international marathon scene. Elias is hungry, eager and confused, and wants it all: the house, the wife, the kids and the prize money. But first he has to find himself a pair of shoes.
A diner has skipped out on his bill and indicated to the waitress we will pay. We talk amongst ourselves and it emerges that no one can recall seeing the man, who, apparently, was seated a few tables away. We lean out of the veranda and scour Iten’s main thoroughfare. The waitress dutifully follows. It is early morning and traffic, human and otherwise, is still sparse. He cannot have gone far but we don’t see the diner among the few people walking, huddled into sweaters and jackets, bracing against the chill. Attempts to get a description are futile. “Was he a runner?” someone asks. The waitress shrugs. The only thing he said before he left was that he was from up the road. We cannot ascertain if he meant his workplace. One last look and still no one; he seems to have vanished into thin air leaving only a white receipt for two cups of tea in the waitress’s hand.
When she hands the bill specifically to Alex Kipkosgei, we attribute it to his ‘counsellor’ status. Alex is the Head of Maintenance at Iten District Hospital. He has also been professional athlete for ten years, runs an organization named Aldai Sports Development Association and is the liaison for a Holland-based agent. His multiple roles connect him to all sides of the community – the runners, civil servants, businessmen and farmers. Walking through the town is a slow progress. An unkempt man with wild hair from the Ministry of Works, who looks like he has been drinking all night and not made it home, pulls him aside for a few minutes to talk about a project at the hospital. A group of eager young runners, their leader in a Nike t-shirt with a swoosh and ‘Run’ emblazoned on it, stop to ask about management, key to breaking into the lucrative European Circuit. In another town, Alex could easily pass unnoticed. He is small, quiet and looks younger than his thirty-three years because of the constant athletic training. But in Iten, where there are 400 to 700 runners during peak training season, he is sought out for his connections in the running world.
Accompanying us is Elias Kiptum Maindi, Alex’s team-mate and friend. They both come from Nandi and went to the same primary school. Their professional lives converged three years before, when Elias came in third at the Aldai half-marathon held every August by Alex’s organization. Elias is young, confident and believes he will be running a 2:06 marathon within a year; his half-marathon best is 1:03. The world-class time is repeated often, with a mixture of seriousness and jest. He describes an incredible negative split he saw, where the last half of the marathon was completed in three minutes less than the first. He has been competing professionally for two years and this year made good time in various road races, and paced champions Felix Limo and Martin Lel in the London Marathon. The optimism is clear in his open, ready smile.
While Elias is sure of his future now, that optimism was crucial when he started out. He was born in June 1980 in Cheboite village, Nandi to a teacher father and housewife mother. The village is forty-two kilometers from Kapsabet. The area is hilly and clouds pass so low it seems you can touch them. It is fertile and people are smallholder farmers growing mainly tea and a little maize. Elias describes his village as “very local,” with local having connotations of rural, isolated, backward. His early life was spent close to the village, going to school at Kesengech Primary where his father taught.
His childhood was typical of a Kenyan rural upbringing – wake up early, go to school, come back home, help with the chores, spend lots of time playing outside. His father had ambitions for him to be a teacher when he grew up, and never having wandered far from his village, he had no reason to see a life for himself outside the one his father had. Besides, by village standards, the teacher is well-off, a man of substance, a man to be accorded respect and addressed as ‘Mwalimu.’ He has left the village, his horizons widened by his stint at teachers training college in the city or the region’s big town, while most other people may not have traveled beyond district. He has education, something that sets him apart from even the chief, sub-chiefs, headmen and other men wielding power in the village. He earns a salary. He is the one dressed neatly in pressed clothes, testament to the access he has to town where he picks up his salary at the end of every month. His children are well clothed, their shoes don’t have holes and they are never sent home for lack of school-fees. He is often the first one in the village to buy things – gadgets, a mobile phone, a Television powered by a car battery, a stereo with CD player, a motorbike. His knowledge of English and local language enables him to slip between both worlds.
My father’s first encounter with his village teacher changed his life. In fact it completely transformed his family’s destiny. It must have been sometime in the early 1950s, when the teacher came recruiting for the newly opened primary school. In those days education was optional. My father gets nostalgic when he says it. He has repeated it so many times, or because he has repeated it so many times, he tells it in the exact same way with the spiel down pat: “The teacher had a bicycle, I wanted a bicycle. So I ran away from home to go to school.” Two legs good, two wheels better. School was optional in those colonial days. Or at least if each family had one child in school, the authorities were satisfied and the rest could continue working around the household, in my father’s case – grazing the animals. My grandfather allowed him to go to the teacher’s local school for a couple of years, but soon my father was grown and his contribution to the household was needed. He was supposed to start herding cattle further and further away from home, sometimes leaving for days, which would not allow time for school. He was still young, took care of goats and sheep and these stayed in the homestead, he could leave them with his peers for a while when he went off to school. His peers could cover for him while he went off to school for a couple of hours.
My grandfather did not approve of this gathering under a tree where they scratched the ground with a stick (no blackboard); to him it was losing a valuable set of hands in his workforce. When my grandfather forbade him to go to school anymore, my father ran away to work at a mzungu’s farm, where as part of the deal he could take some hours every day to attend lessons. This break meant all his successive brothers, all the brothers who followed him also went to school. Completely breaking with the pastoralist life that they had followed before, and just like that, power went from the older men in the family to the younger ones who could transact in this new world of ID cards, birth certificates and title deeds.
By high school Elias wanted to be a doctor. Two of his paternal uncles were in the medical profession: one a clinical officer at the nearby health center and the other a doctor in Kapsabet. They were still government employees, still following the education-is-the-way-to-a-successful-life path trodden by millions of Kenyans, but a medicine as a career was more desirable and prestigious than teaching. For the few highly-coveted spots in medical school, there are thousands of applicants. Moving up the education system is a game of attrition. It starts out easily enough – with the advent of free primary education, virtually every child – and those adults who missed out – can go to school. About 700,000 pupils sit the standardized exam at the end of the eighth year, but only 300,000 go on to secondary school. For university, it narrows again, with 17,000 places available in public universities, which are subsidized and offer the best and most affordable option for higher education. So competition is intense, cheating is rife, and parents putting children through supplementary learning earlier and earlier; it is common to see seven year olds with piles of homework and tuition after school. And the university education is no guarantee of a job. Employment opportunities are few, and since the government raised the retirement age to sixty to avoid a hefty pension bill, they are even fewer.
Elias graduated high school in November 2001 after a tough month of sitting exams and settled in to enjoy his holiday. No one enjoys December holidays like high-school graduates. It is heady, you are in a suspended, in-between stage filled with possibility and parties: the drudgery of studying late nights is behind you and the examination results that will have an inordinate effect on the rest of your life are still far away. People are many and jobs are few. But you don’t understand that yet. Even the mainstay, farming, was not as reliable a fallback as it used to be. A father with fifty acres and five sons divides the land between them. If the sons in turn have five sons each, the land will be down to 2 acres, less than the 2.5 acres that is the minimum for commercially viable farming.
Elias enjoyed his new sense of freedom. He would ask for a little money from his parents and wander around the village with his friends. They went to all the Christmas parties, feasted on the slaughtered chickens and goats, and ate once-a-year chapatti and rice. They trekked all night to dances with radios placed on top of pots half-filled with water to amplify the music and paid little boys to give messages to girls to sneak out of their aunties’ houses at night. It was a time of revelling, excess and dabbling in the pleasures forbidden to them until now.
Elias laughs, “I even drank busaa,” the traditional brew made from millet, dark and heavy like porridge, or like Guinness, which pregnant women are told to drink for its nutritional value. Busaa has niacin, B12 vitamins, is calorific and sits in the stomach like a meal. It brings to mind old men with long straws drinking around a communal pot, or old women who have finished their obligation to society and were living their last days at their own leisure. No longer tethered by societal restraints, they could drink, curse, throw tantrums and speak the truth without a dent to their characters.
Then January came, hot, wrung-out and sober as lent after carnival. Elias started the dreaded wait for the exam results which would tell him if he had qualified for university. He started to see the young men around him, some who had been to college, stuck at home with nothing to do. There is a dangerous age for men of this area, somewhere between eighteen and twenty-five. The high school graduates have a year or two before they go to university and the college graduates are tarmacing, hitting the tarmac with numerous other school leavers to knock on doors with diploma and certificates stuffed in a brown envelope till their shoes wear out. There are humiliating waits in office front rooms with sneering secretaries, who, now that they are gatekeepers, forget they were once in the same position. There is also the obligatory visit to your MPs office, where there is a long line of supplicants and the good chance after waiting all day, he will take your papers absently, promise to help and you will never hear from him again.
The first generation after independence was guaranteed government employment with a certain level of education, but the population had increased drastically without corresponding economic growth, so the few who got government jobs relied on luck, fate and whatever connections they had. Those whom fate hadn’t smiled on settled for lives of despair and drinking, and not the little tastes of high school and college where they had something to pull them out of the alcohol, but drinking proper, the kind that found them red-eyed at the centre at two in the afternoon, sitting in groups discussing politics, women and money.
When the results came out, Elias had passed, but had not made the university cut-off. His father started to look for a place for him in a teachers training college. Elias considered it briefly, but deep inside, he knew he did not want to be a teacher. The shine of the profession had tarnished and teaching seemed to be going from crisis to crisis; pay rises that were promised years before were never fulfilled leading to the constant threat of strikes, students were rioting at unprecedented levels and many teachers were paying out a hefty portion of their salaries on deceptively easy loans they had taken to keep up with the cost of living. Besides there was nothing new or exciting about living life exactly as his father had.
One day, when Elias was in the centre, a few young men from the neighbouring village stopped by. It emerged that they had just started training and were hoping to emulate in local boys made good Rodgers Rop and Martin Lel. Names of foriegn cities cropped up, Lisbon, Rotterdam and the money being made, which rumour and hearsay had inflated into the millions. And Elias got it into his head that he was going to be a runner. He did not know how or when; he had never done sports in school; he was seventy-five kilos from idling and drinking busaa and he looked nothing like a runner.
“When I said I wanted to run people thought I was joking. They ridiculed me,” he says. So the next morning, barefoot and in some old shorts, he started running.
Did your feet hurt?
“When you don’t know any better, it is OK,” he says.
From his house, he took a track that went round the nearby farms.
He was aware of his body in a way he had never been. His lungs hurt, he could barely breathe and in between his legs there was a sensation like a thousand ants alternately tickling and biting from the friction of his thighs rubbing together.
He shakes his head, “It was painful. Very painful.”
He didn’t own a watch, so had no idea of how long he was running or how far. He would start out on the track, go till he was tired and then come back. Each day he went further and discovered his body ached less.
After two months he went to a shoe shop in Kapsabet and bought himself a pair of sports shoes for one hundred and fifty shillings. He was very happy with them, not knowing that a good pair of specialized running shoes costs about ten thousand shillings. The shoes had no cushioning, but again, he didn’t know better: this was progress. While in Kapsabet he met Hosea Kogo, a runner from a nearby village who told him the best thing to do first was cut the weight, and then move to Kapsabet. Cutting weight meant sweating. So Elias went to a mitumba seller and bought a nylon shell track jacket for 40 shillings and matching bottom for 30 shillings. He went back home, pleased with his purchases and with a renewed vigour to follow his dream.
He woke up every morning and puffed up and down the hills, his nylon tracksuit making terrible squishing noises and sweating profusely, in that way that boxers do when they want to lose weight before fights. Sometimes he wanted to stop, but chasing him up those hills were the prospects of teacher training school, farming, becoming exactly like his father, thoughts he had not fully articulated yet, but knowing something better lay ahead. He grew stronger and the weight started coming off. And though he did not time himself, or know how many kilometres he covered, how much weight he lost, he knew that he ran a little further everyday, he did not sweat as much, the aches and pains were more bearable and his body felt lighter.
After two months, he went to see his uncle, the doctor, who lived in Kapsabet. Elias knew if he was going to get better, he needed to be around other runners. In the village the runners were young and just starting, Kapsabet offered champions training on a daily basis along the roads and in the stadium where anyone interested could go and watch. The uncle, having studied and worked in Nairobi, understood him better than his father did and agreed to provide him with a place to stay while Elias found his place in the world. This was common, living with a relative while you tried your luck in the town or city. Sometimes it worked out well – you got food and shelter for a while, you found a job, moved out and everyone was happy. Sometimes it didn’t – the wife hated having her space invaded and having other grown men in the house that she had to cook for and wait on and saw it saw it as a burden she did not sign up for. Even worse was when you did not have relatives in town who could hate you while you hustled and found something to do.
Elias moved to Kapsabet and started training in the mornings. His uncle lived next to the show ground while most of the running camps were on the other side of town near the stadium. Elias stayed with his uncle for a couple of months, then his cousin, Ben Maiyo, a high school runner in Western Province and was the district champion as several events, saw that Elias had set himself up to run, so he left school to pursue his athletic career. They moved to a plot near the stadium where they rented a mud hut for 150 shillings a month. The uncle wished them luck and gave them a bed, a mattress, beddings, a lamp and a jiko, essentials to start a new life. He also gave them a debe of maize, and this is what would sustain them for the next couple of months, taking it to the posho mill to grind into unga for ugali. The landlord did not live on the plot but he came by once in a while to look things and ask for rent, which they invariably did not have. Luckily the landlord spent a lot of time in busaa joints and a twenty shilling coin was enough to distract him till he ran out of drinking money again, then he would come by and they would give him ugali and sukuma wiki and another twenty shilling coin if they had it.
Elias made a point not to ask for any assistance from home. Asking for help was tantamount to admitting they were failing, and he knew if his father helped him it would give him room to suggest Elias return home and farm so that he could make some money to go to teacher’s training college. He never outwardly quarrelled or broke with his father and once in a while at end month, when his father came to pick his salary from Kapsabet, as teachers are paid at the district office, his father would fold over a five hundred shilling note and hand it to him. That day they would eat meat. Elias never let his father see how or where they lived. The rest of the money stretched over the month, returning to their diet of ugali and sukuma wiki. Money was denoted in twenty shilling coins: twenty shillings for sukuma wiki, twenty shillings to give the landlord when he came around. They never paid rent for the duration of the time they lived in that plot.
In Kapsabet, their lives took on some semblance of a routine. Every morning at six they woke up and followed a group of runners passing outside their door. They didn’t know what program the runners were on, they just followed them for as long as they could keep up. After a few kilometres they were usually left behind. One Tuesday they followed the runners to Kipchoge Keino stadium. The athletes arranged themselves in a single file and at the signal of the drill leader, they started running very fast round the track. After two and a half laps, they stopped and made their way back to the starting point. When they got into formation to repeat the drill, Elias joined the back of the line. By the time they finished two laps, he was two hundred meters behind.
“I didn’t want to get discouraged,” he says.
Elias caught up with the runners while they were walking back to the starting point. Again, he joined the back of the line. Again, he dropped back by more than half a lap. Speedwork does exactly what its name suggests, builds speed. This is how a marathoner, after running forty-one-and-a-half kilometres, is able to produce a finishing sprint over the last five hundred meters, or a ten thousand meter runner is able to conserve his energy for twenty four laps then open up an astounding gap with a 61 second sprint over the final lap.
When the annual Discovery Cross Country Championship race was held in Eldoret that year, Elias went in hopes that his training was starting to pay off. The race is a major event in Kenya’s athletic calendar, open to all, and all the big agents and teams looking for new talent attend. The race is so important that the district administration in Kapsabet provides free transport to the event.
“I saw dust,” says Elias. “People were moving like bullets.”
The senior men’s twelve kilometre race goes round the two-kilometre cross country circuit six times.
“By the time they were coming back this way, I was still on the side where we started. I felt like cutting across the field,” says Elias.
He went back to Kapsabet knowing the only way he would get better was through intense training.
One day when Elias got to the stadium for speedwork training, there was an excited buzz among the runners: Martin Lel was there. Martin had achieved the kind of success many runners dream of. He was sought after in major road races in London and Lisbon, and he had the most lethal finishing kick in the business. Elias took his customary place at the back of the line and after several repeats one runner hung back to talk to Elias.
“Keep going… just keep going,” he said. It was Martin Lel; when they stopped he also spoke to the other slower runners, encouraging them.
After the exercise was finished, Martin came over to Elias.
“I see you can run,” Martin said. He asked where Elias was from and how long he had been training. It turned out that Martin’s father was originally from Kobuchoi, close to Elias’s village, but had bought a farm and moved to Kapsabet many years before.
Martin took one look at Elias’s shoes, which had no support or cushioning and were completely unsuited for training, and told him to come to camp later that evening. When Elias got to the camp, the athletes were relaxing on the veranda, telling stories and getting ready for the next day. When he asked for Martin, said that they did not know where Martin was.
“They didn’t want to tell me exactly where Martin was because they didn’t know me,” says Elias.
This was common. As Martin’s success grew, so did the number of people coming to the camp to see him. They all wanted something, usually money. The other athletes at the camp knew to give vague answers when asked about Martin’s whereabouts, and under no circumstances were they to give out his phone number.
“They told me they didn’t have his number,” Elias says, which was obviously a lie as how do you not have the number of someone you live with.
Elias was getting frustrated and wanted to leave when Martin emerged from a back room. He greeted him and gave him a pair of proper running shoes, brand new, and two t-shirts. Elias saw the looks of envy the other runners gave him, like he was infringing on their territory. Who was he to be given gear that could have gone to them.
Elias returned home completely fired up. He woke up every morning at six and waited for the runners from Martin’s camp to pass by, then he followed them and did whatever they were doing, keeping up for as long as he could, then finishing the run at his own pace. When he met Martin in training, he would ask how they were progressing. Once in a while after training Martin bought the whole group juice, the concentrated kind that you diluted with water, or he took them to Kaspabet for lunch. It would be the only other time Elias ate meat.
A few weeks after, Martin was looking for a piece of land near where Elias and Ben lived and he dropped in on them. He was appalled at their living conditions – the dilapidated hut with a grass roof that was falling apart, the old furniture and no food in sight but the debe of maize and a handful of wilted sukuma-wiki. The next week Martin took them to his camp.
Though Martin stayed in the camp run by Dr. Gabriele Rosa, who managed many of Kenya’s elite athletes, he had set up his own camp nearby for runners who were just starting out or who were poor and couldn’t afford to support themselves while they trained to that point where a manager would be interested in signing them. The camp was a long narrow rented building with blue walls, red polished cement floors, sparse furnishings and narrow beds, that he rents, with blue paint, red polished cement floors meagre furnishings and narrow beds, but compared to where Elias had been, it was paradise. Fenced and sitting a little way up the hill above the men’s camp was the women’s camp that had among its athletes, Martin’s younger sister. All the extra gear Martin got would be distributed in the camp – the tights, t-shirts and shoes. Martin also came regularly to drop off food – unga, milk, vegetables, tea-leaves and sugar. The twenty runners in the camp had a duty roster and they took turns cooking and cleaning for themselves, but for the first time there was proper training gear, a proper training regimen, good food and shelter and they were not expected to pay a cent.
Now Elias could afford to fix his mind fully on training. He remembers telling his cousin Ben Maiyo that there was no way they could afford to fail. They were still far from their dream of racing abroad but one look at where they started and they could not compare it to where they were now.
“Now I started to look like a runner,” Elias says. A sleek, athletic physique emerged from his formerly flabby body and he was kitted-out in tights, a t-shirt and proper running shoes. Best of all they were not running randomly, following other athletes with no clue what they were doing. The camp had a program designed to turn them in to world-class runners and the nutrition to support it.
Elias’s times improved steadily and soon he had moved from the back of the pack and was passing a few runners in camp. The times they trained with Martin Lel he could not keep up, but the fact that he was passing more and more runners every month encouraged him.
In early 2003, Elias and the runners in the camp went to Kisumu to run in the provincial cross country trials. Cross country is a good way to test for road races. They are local so travel expense is minimal, there is some serious talent, it is grass so it is more difficult than road or track and there are always some killer hills. Besides, there is no point of putting in all those training hours if they were not going to pit themselves against runners in a race environment. It was exhilarating, racing against the big names, people who from here would go on to national trials and then represent the country in international competition. Those open competitions were always dramatic in ways that international competitions were not. It was one thing for a star Kenyan runner to be defeated by a star Ethiopian runner in international competition, but here, if the stars had not trained well some unknown could come and sweep the whole lot of established runners, leaving them in the dust. For the amateurs, this precedent of young runners coming out of the back of the field to beat the favourites encouraged them. Elias did not do so well, but unlike the previous year at the Eldoret Discovery Cross Country event, he was not overlapped, and he went back to camp elated and eager to put more time in his training.
As he got stronger and faster, Elias continued to enter local races. In 2004 he was third at the Aldai half-marathon in Nandi. The event was organized by Alex Kipkosgei, who came from a nearby village and had gone to primary school with Elias. Alex’s athletic career was winding down and he was looking to get into coaching and running the Aldai Sports Development Association. After the race, Alex invited Elias to Iten to train with a team Alex was preparing for the Nairobi Marathon. In terms of prize-money and exposure, the Nairobi Marathon is the biggest race in Kenya, so it was a great opportunity Elias to take the next step in his fledgling career. Alex’s organisation had a little corporate sponsorship, so food and shelter for the duration of training and transport to the marathon were covered. But it would mean leaving Martin’s camp. However attractive Alex’s offer was – training at Iten’s high altitude with a group of runners towards the biggest race in Kenya – Elias pondered if he should stay in Kapsabet and hold out for whatever opportunities Martin, an elite athlete with connections in the highest echelons of running, might offer, no matter how far off or unsure they seemed right then. In the end he called Martin and it turned out his worrying had been in vain: Martin had no problem with him moving to Iten.
In Iten, the training increased in intensity. Whatever progress Elias felt he had made, he was among stronger runners that Alex had picked from various races. It was like when you were the best in high school, then you moved to college where you were just one of many bests and you had to work that much harder to stand out. The rest of the runners stayed in a small rented house across the road from the hospital housing where Alex lived. Elias stayed with Alex, sleeping in a space that had been partitioned from the sitting room with a white sheet. On one side of the sheet was his bed, his suitcase and a small stool where he kept the stiff-bristled brush he used to smooth his short hair, Vaseline, a toothbrush and a small broken-off piece of a mirror. The other side had a wooden dining table and four chairs, a TV, a stereo with large speakers and an assortment of bib-numbers, medals, trophies and other running paraphernalia. They sat around the table when they ate and turned the chairs to face the TV when they watched news. The house was one in a series of long narrow buildings that had three houses a piece stretched on a large field with a mad array of TV antennas sticking up at the top. Behind, they had fenced off a small vegetable garden growing sukuma-wiki and peas criss-crossed with unwound spools from cassette tapes glinting and swaying in the wind to scare off birds. They woke up before dawn and went for their first run before Alex had to report to work at the hospital and trained again in the late afternoon. In the evenings, they ate supper in front of the TV watching news with the runners from across the road. Mondays they had an easy run, Tuesdays they had speed-work, Wednesdays, easy run again, Thursday, intervals, Friday, easy run and Saturdays, long runs that were anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-five kilometres. On Sundays they rested.
One day Martin called Elias and told him to get a passport. Elias experienced a rush – Europe was so close. Next he felt a clutching fear: he did not know anything about getting a passport and he barely had any money to his name. For the first time since he had left home, he called his father to ask for money. He painstakingly explained that he had a chance to race in Europe, but he needed a passport.
“My father couldn’t understand how something as simple as running was taking me abroad,” says Elias. For his father, running was something school children did on sports days.
The great thing about living in Iten is the things you will go through as a runner, hundreds of people have been through them already. So he found out that he could travel to Kisumu with certain documents and photos and get a passport in twenty-one days.
Elias’s father had told him to meet him in Kapsabet at the end of the month, when he would be collecting his salary. Elias was waiting at the stage for his father when he came from the District Education Office. They spoke over a cup of tea, and his father saw that though he believed Elias was better off at college, he saw his son’s conviction. So he reached into his pocket and gave him ten thousand shillings. It was the largest sum of money Elias had held in his hand. Elias understood what it had cost his father to give him that amount of money; it represented a significant portion of his father’s monthly salary and there was no lack of necessities to spend it on. It was the all money he hadn’t asked for since he had left the village.
Elias spent the next few days collecting the items he would need to get a passport – birth certificate, photographs, and an affidavit from a lawyer – and boarded a matatu for Kisumu, the nearest immigration office that issued passports. The money his father gave him covered the trip to Kisumu, about one thousand shillings, the passport, three thousand shillings, and the overnight stay in Kisumu.
At the immigration office, he wandered from window to window filling forms. When the brokers that fill every government office approached him and offered their services, he thought they were genuine good Samaritans who wanted to help.
“I was so green,” Elias laughs. He did not know behind the windows were numerous stacks of files that a broker, for a small fee of course, could turn around fast. Luckily, the days when you could not get a passport without an inside connection were gone. Underneath plaques declaring this a no corruption zone and stating government services were the citizen’s right, grim civil servants could only frustrate Elias so much. Faced with Elias’ blank stare the brokers left him to his own devices he dutifully filled out all the forms and took them to the right window and was told to come back in the proscribed twenty-one days. It was only when he got back to Iten and everyone asked where his passport was that he understood who those good Samaritans were, and that he could have left Kisumu with his passport. With the money left over, Elias bought a cheap phone, one of those big bulky ones you almost had to hold with two hands. After three weeks he called the passport office, but his passport was not ready. He kept calling until three months had passed and his passport was ready, then he boarded the matatu for a repeat journey to Kisumu. This time he knew what the brokers were, but he did not need them. Elias held the passport in his hands – the smooth blue cover, the embossed gold coat of arms, his photo staring back at him, the clean crisp pages with counterfeit-proof wavy lines – and waited.
In mid 2005 Elias got a call from Martin asking him to come to Eldoret that evening. Elias borrowed 200 shillings and boarded a matatu. When he got to Eldoret, Martin was told him that he was to go to the Dutch Embassy in Nairobi and get a visa to the Netherlands. Elias only had the borrowed 200 shillings in his pocket minus eighty shillings for the fare from Iten.
“I don’t have any money,” he said, a little embarrassed.
Martin nodded like this was what he expected and handed him 6,000 shillings. He didn’t even have time to go and pick a change of clothes. They went to the bus stage and Martin bought him a ticket and told him to go first to Athletics Kenya office and then the embassy.
“I don’t know where that is,” Elias said.
“Ask any taxi driver. He will know,” Martin replied.
It was to be his second time in Nairobi. The first was a short visit with a friend where he was taken round town briefly and shown the landmarks, Kenyatta International Conference Center, synonymous with Nairobi skyline for many years, and Times Tower, which had come to exceed it in height.
Elias boarded the 10 pm bus to Nairobi, not knowing what to expect. He got there at 6 am and went to a hotel to drink tea while he waited for the AK offices to open. After an hour the waiter showed him a taxi rank and he took a taxi to the AK offices – the taxi driver did know where he was. When the driver said 500 shillings, he did not negotiate. He went to the AK offices and the letter confirming his status as an athlete was waiting for him. He picked up the letter and went to Riverside, where the Netherlands Embassy is located.
“Where are you going,” the woman behind the thick glass pane asked him.
“I don’t know,” said Elias.
He had a blank passport, he was young, unemployed and unmarried and fit the profile of an economic migrant to a tee – one of those who was going to stay in their country, take away their jobs, drain their welfare system, send for his whole family, get the right to vote and in time outnumber the natives and take over the country.
Only people who were going to go back where they came from please.
“My documents have been faxed,” said Elias.
The lady went to the back and returned with a sheaf of papers and a much less frosty demeanour. She gave Elias a form to fill, took his invitation letter, passport and 2,500 shillings, and gave him a small white receipt with a reference number and the date to pick up his visa. Elias called Martin to update him and Martin instructed him to go to the Sangita Travel Agency on Moi Avenue and book a ticket to Amsterdam. He left his visa receipt with the travel agent – she would pick the visa for him when it was ready. His business in Nairobi complete, Elias boarded an afternoon shuttle for Eldoret and got one of the last matatus to Iten.
In September he got a call from Martin to meet him at the bus stage again. When he got there Martin was waiting with a plastic bag filled with packets of unga and tea leaves. Seeing Elias’s amusement Martin said, “You think there is ugali there. And the tea is just not the same.”
“Someone will be waiting for you.”
He boarded the bus to Nairobi, and when he arrived he went straight to the travel agency offices on Moi Avenue, only to find that his ticket and documents were waiting for him at the airport.
He took a taxi to the airport and sat in the lounge for hours, waiting for his flight to open. He had the look of a novice traveller, no book, newspaper or music player to while away the time, a small worn bag with few items of clothing and a plastic bag full of food items.
Was he nervous?
“Yes, but so far everything had been coordinated,” says Elias
“Will you be checking in any luggage?” the woman at the counter asks, eyeing his food and small bag. “Maybe you just take it with you.”
She issued him with a boarding pass, and he went toward the big sign labelled ‘Departures’ where he filled out forms, and climbed the escalator to the departure lounge and did the ballet of removing jacket, shoes, belt putting them on and removing them again for final security check. Then they waited again till the flight was ready to board, crowding the entrance to the gangway though their seats had already been assigned.
Elias is on the brink. Three and a half years of training, false starts, moments of crippling doubt when he thought he would never get here. He does not know what is ahead, but knows it will change his life irrevocably. He is seated in the plane with rows and rows of other passengers. The pilot’s voice comes from the speakers above, “Welcome… we will be taking off shortly… cruising altitude… seat belt sign… expected time of arrival.” The plane backs out from the terminal and makes its way onto the runway. The engines’ dull roar turns into a high pitched whine as it picks up speed, there is a funny feeling in his stomach, and he can’t tell if it is from the motion of the plane or excitement. And the ground falls away rapidly until only pinpoints of light mark where they have come from.
In the two years since I met him, Elias has moved out of Alex Kipkosgei’s house at the Iten hospital staff quarters and is now living in a row of small rental houses near the Iten police station in an area known as Lily’s. The space is bigger – there is one bedroom, a sitting room, a kitchen. Outside, on the far end of the plot are a row of toilets and bathrooms for the all the houses in the compound. At Alex’s house, where Elias had lived since coming to Iten, he had slept in the sitting room, the spaced divided with a white sheet for privacy. The other side of the partition had four chairs, a TV and a stereo with large speakers that was always on, either tuned to the Kalenjin radio station, the same one he streamed on the internet when he was abroad, or playing the latest hits on pirated CDs. A Dutch flag hung on the wall, possibly because his management was Dutch and he spent a good part of the year there, he had adopted it as his second home.
In Elias’s new house, medals and bib numbers still adorn the walls, but the Dutch flag is absent and the stereo is silent. That is not all that has changed. In December 2007, Elias’s girlfriend, Zeddy, gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. They were delighted but not surprised. Elias is a twin, fraternal, and a few minutes older than his brother, Sylvester Cheruiyot. The twins are almost six months old now and Zeddy has gone back to college to study accounting, so it is Elias that supervises the maid in the day to day care of the children as he is home between training sessions. Though Zeddy has the slim build of a runner and was doing the basic preparation, lots of jogging, before getting into a structured training program when I first met her, Elias does not want her to be a runner.
“Let us do something else in this family. We all don’t have to run,” he says.
Elias is making good money now, but an athlete’s career lasts for ten years, if he is lucky, less if he is not. After college Zeddy will look for a job and she will bring in what may be the sole income of their later years. If she was a runner her career would end at thirty or thirty-five, but as an accountant as she can work until she is sixty-five. So right now Elias’s money finances her college and provides a base: a home of their own, which they are in the process of building, probably some rental properties, which they are saving for and some securities they have invested in.
The twins are as different as night and day. The boy, Mato, named after Martin Lel, Elias’s mentor, is dark and broody. He is always asleep when I visit, and the short spells he is awake are grumpy ones. The girl, Maureen, is bubbly, alert and has inherited Elias’s ready, open smile. She is a happy baby and she is not afraid of strangers. Most of the time she is on Elias’s lap as the maid cleans the house or feeds the other baby. The question of if personality is shaped by nature or nurture comes to mind when I am with the twins, and at this early age and shaped by the exact same conditions, nature seems to be winning out.
In his first year on the professional circuit, a large part of Elias’s winnings went back to help his family – they mostly used the money to improve their home in Nandi. In his second year on the circuit, he used his winnings to buy a half-acre plot on the flat expanse of the plateau framed in the background by the Cherang’any hills, flanking his property on each side were runners Peter Kiprotich Cherus and Charles Koech, both also from Volare Sports – one of them had heard of the land being sold and encouraged the others to buy. They now referred to the area as Volare Row and jokingly talked about going to the local council to get an official name change. In the third year, Elias started building. His twin brother, Sylvester, came from Nandi and moved into a temporary mabati structure in the plot to oversee the building. They bought posts and barbed wire, fenced the plot and soon lorries were dropping sand, stones and gravel to go into the foundation.
Elias also had an ulterior motive for bringing Sylvester to Iten. He feared that Sylvester, having finished high school and gone nowhere, was falling further into the busaa trap, as the years passed and no opportunities materialized. Elias knew that if he left Sylvester there, his brother could fall by the wayside and become one of those men, bleary and red-eyed by ten in the morning so you didn’t know if they were drunk from the night before or had woken up and gone straight to the busaa den. Ironically, the busaa destroying the drinkers’ lives was providing for the brewers’ families and many women who turned to brewing did so because there was no other way to feed their families and send their children to school.
So when it was time to build his house, Elias saw an opportunity to get his brother out of Nandi, and in the process of building, get his brother into the running life. Elias never told Sylvester this directly: that wouldn’t have worked. Rather he gave Sylvester a pair of running shoes and a kit and told him to start jogging, if just for the exercise. This is not uncommon – if you come to runners for help, and you are an able-bodied young man or woman, they will see themselves in you before they became professional athletes and the best thing they can do to help is send you along the same path.
Immediately Sylvester began running, he reduced the busaa. There is nothing worse than doing a seventeen kilometer run when you are still buzzed, fuzzy-headed and your limbs feel like they are made of lead. Elias would swing by in the mornings and they would jog to where the rest of the group started their morning run. Sylvester would keep up with them for as long as he could, usually the first ten to fifteen minutes while the group was warming up, but as soon as they were warmed up, the pace picked considerably and, inevitably, he was left behind. He tried to keep them within sight, especially when the road rose to the top of a little hill, so he could make sure he saw which turns they took. Stories of young runners falling back behind the group and getting lost were legendary. Elias tells me of a young athlete on his first long run who missed the turn to loop back to the main road and ended up somewhere beyond Sergoit Hill. The other athletes had waited for him at the meeting point at the end of the run and when he didn’t show up after about half an hour, they went back to Iten thinking he had taken a short-cut and doubled back. The young athlete arrived in Iten at midday, exhausted and dehydrated having wandered around the countryside for more than four hours.
As Elias had hoped, between the running and supervising the building, Sylvester was now drinking only on weekends. For most people, the athletic life in itself will push you away from these things. If you are dedicated to one, you won’t have time for the other. After a grueling morning run, what you want is some tea and bread and a nap, not go to look for busaa, otherwise you won’t be able to wake up and do it again tomorrow, and success hinges on your body being able to wake and do that for many, many mornings in a row. And if you were drinking to numb yourself because you had no purpose in life, then that was not the case now. Even Sylvester’s weekend drinking started to taper off as his body punished him during the rigorous Monday tempo run. But the smoking he continued, often lighting up as soon as he came home from the morning run. That he gave up after more than a year of training, only when he really began to see that he really had a shot of becoming a professional athlete.
Elias’s house comes up in direct correlation to his winnings. A win at the Linz Marathon and the house is built up to shoulder level. A second placing at a half-marathon and roofing material is bought. Athletes still in the early stage of their careers are not advised to invest in time consuming things as maintenance of those assets can take away focus from running and cut all important training hours. Better to invest in a house, which is an immediate need, securities like stocks and bonds and low maintenance assets like land that can be bought now, keep appreciating, and be developed later, after the athletic career is over.
What is interesting about the athletes is that they earn middle class incomes without living middle class lifestyles. While they earn forty or fifty thousand Euros a year, which translates to four or five million shillings at a hundred shillings to the Euro, they live in rentals where they pay two thousand shillings a month, water and electricity is probably another five hundred shillings and food is another two thousand shillings. They spend a fraction of what they earn on living expenses so by the time they are thirty you find they own their houses and cars outright, with no loans and no debt. Adding to the sense of frugality and caution you find among most of the runners are the cautionary tales who have gone before them. Kenyan runners have been in the international scene since the 1950s, with the country establishing its reputation as a mid and long distance powerhouse at the 1968 Olympics. The sport turned professional in the late eighties and early nineties and many of those athletes, with no role models to follow in terms of how to manage their winnings to last them the rest of their lives, squandered their money. There is a story that is told of a runner who bought a Mercedes Benz when he was at the height of his career and spent most of his money having a good time. After ‘the speed got finished’ he had to return to the land to make a living and endure the humiliation of taking the potatoes to the market in a Mercedes. This story has entered into the language and ‘taking the potatoes to the market in Merc’ has become an expression of all that is dangerous about spending your money on luxuries that will evaporate as soon as the all too brief running career is over.
In his third full year on the circuit, Elias has earned just about forty thousand Euros before his manager’s 15% cut. His monthly expenditure is about ten thousand shillings. He exploits the margins between the high earning capabilities in Europe and the low cost of living in rural Kenya so there is a big surplus in his income. If he lived in Europe, that money would not go far. Even in Nairobi it would not go as far as it does in Iten. Elias needs to exploit those margins because in a country of forty million people, there are a paltry 16,000 mortgages which are given to mostly civil servants and employees of blue chip companies – the salary women and men. A recent study showed that to afford a house of 2 million shillings, you would have to earn 100,000 shillings in a month, a salary few Kenyans earn, and in the life of a typical 16%, 15 year mortgage, you will have paid back 7.2 million shillings, more than three and a half times the initial value of the loan. The government has recently floated a 30 year bond that is tied to mortgages so loans can be cheaper, but in the years waiting for that to became a reality, you have to live somewhere.
Many athletes, since they are not salaried and their income, dependent on winning, which is in turn dependent on many variables, earned abroad cannot be verified by the banks, cannot qualify for a mortgage. So as they race and win money, then buy a plot, win another race, put down the foundation, come second in another race and the house comes to waist level and once the structure is standing and has windows and doors they move in and finish the house slowly – installing kitchen cabinets, curtain boxes, painting the walls, tiling floors and finishing the bathrooms with fixtures and tiles. Electricity can be installed thereafter, with kerosene lamps used until then and if mains water is a problem, an immersion pump can be installed in the well, one of the first things dug on a plot, the water pumped to an elevated tank and then you have indoor plumbing and it is goodbye landlord and you have your own place where no one can ever chase you from.
An excerpt from Jackie Lebo’s forthcoming book Running.